I’m going to attempt to weave my love of Post-It notes with my reaction to the Education Sector panel on “Finding the Link: Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development.” I’d like to focus on one aspect of this complex discussion: teacher buy-in. Here goes…
As a teacher, I see Post-It notes as my personal guardians. Filled with reminders, notes, slogans, messages, and posted—literally—all around me, they guide me and protect my life from the uncertainties of not knowing. They are beautiful (and, if you go to Costco, not too expensive in bulk!). One Post-It note that has been up on my bedroom wall—placed conspicuously by the door above the lightswitch to serve as a constant reminder—contains a quote that I firmly believe in:
The quote comes from Wong and Wong’s The First Days of School. Believe it or not, Wong and Wong devote an entire book to the first days of school. They state that the first days of school are just as important, if not more so, than any other day (such as graduation). What you do on Day One significantly affects what you can expect on Day 100 (no wonder TFA is all about being “Day One Ready”). They set the tone. They engage. They are the only days that matter. Like Wong and Wong, I believe that often life gives you only have one opportunity to attempt certain things.
I’ll explain why this quote matters to the Education Sector panel in two point five seconds.
While listening to the captivating discussion—moderated by Elena Silva, with Brad Jupp, Jen Mulhern and Scott Thompson as honored panelists—I constantly returned to one issue that had gnawed at me from the get-go: teacher buy-in.
Let me explain. As a teacher, I know that getting my students invested in what we do in the classroom can make a world of difference. Teachers who neglect this aspect of teaching risk leading a classroom full of non-committed learners who simply “go along” with what the teacher does but don’t truly believe in it. Students put on a façade that they care, when, deep down, they don’t. Learning deteriorates or doesn’t occur at all. Not good.
So, my question is this: can’t the same thing happen with teachers? Can’t a school district be filled with teachers who simply “go along” with fancy new systems of teacher evaluation and professional development without truly seeing them as a way to improve as teachers?
Actually, there are two sides to this question:
(1) On the teacher evaluation side, how do you get teachers to buy in to the idea of performance evaluation, especially if and when the system is so unfamiliar, filled with inherent risks, and tied to very high stakes?
- Based on my limited experience, I’ve seen some teacher behaviors that directly contradict the (good) intentions of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. At my school, when the master educators enter the building, teachers go around alerting the entire building. Some teachers proceed as usual; others, however, pull out their one-off, let’s-follow-everything-on-the-IMPACT-rubric lesson plan. What I have seen is an “us versus them” (read: “teachers versus IMPACT”) mentality that defeats entirely the purpose of IMPACT. What should we do to increase buy-in here?
(2) On the professional development side, how do you get teachers who are already so busy—gah!—to carve out time for professional development, and to see PD as something more—much more!—than a mandatory requirement to earn a few professional learning units?
- As a Teach For America corps member, I am already loaded with a bevy of outside-of-school professional development commitments. We have monthly Professional Development Saturdays, weekly workshops, meetings with our Program Directors and general troubleshooting office hours. As a result, I think I have a good excuse not to have ever been to the Logan PD annex for additional DCPS-sponsored professional development. Yet, what surprises—and disappoints—me is that I literally cannot recall a single instance of a teacher mentioning that s/he had attended a professional development session downtown. Whether for lack of time, interest, awareness or motivation—there just is no culture of continuous improvement at my school. What should we do to increase buy-in here?
Indeed, without buy-in, these theoretically brilliant, breathtaking systems are destined for failure.
I appreciated the remarks that the panelists made on this thorny issue. Rather than summarize every panelist, I’m going to hone in on one person’s comments and then expand with my own thoughts.
Scott Thompson, the man in charge of IMPACT at DCPS, offered the most honest and direct answer to this question of teacher buy-in. He explained that, at the end of the day, a system “earns credibility by being helpful and useful” to those it is intended to help. Mr. Thompson described his 50+ small-group sessions with DCPS educators, where he learned that people’s feeling about IMPACT depended to a large degree on their own experience with those who were dispatched to observe them. Teacher buy-in requires listening to the teachers directly and responding to their concerns. He ended by saying something more concrete: “if teachers go to a PD session and don’t find it useful, they won’t go to it again.” Well said.
And here is where my Post-It note comes back into play. The message messily scrawled on this note reads, again, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” With IMPACT—and any new system in general—what happens in the “first days” matters tremendously in setting the tone for a successful future. If teachers have a bad initial experience with a system, they are far less likely to invest themselves in the future, even if the flaws are eventually “fixed.” As in many other realms of the real world, the first impression can make all the difference.
What I am driving at here is that buy-in or investment is not something that can be easily adjusted mid-course, but is something that is largely driven by the first impression!
Where does IMPACT stand in terms of its first impression on me and my colleagues across the DC Public Schools? Were we hooked during our “first days” interacting with the system?
I say that the first impression has not been all too favorable. This first impression is drawn from conversations with various teachers across the district. Furthermore, they are based on an informal SurveyMonkey survey that I conducted of TFA CMs teaching in schools across DCPS. Altogether, I’ve heard of numerous incidents that make me question whether DCPS made the right first impression in terms of keeping teachers bought into the system. These are but a few:
- At one DCPS school, a teacher was the subject of two “ghost” observations. A “ghost” observation, in my definition, is one in which an administrator never actually entered the room. Instead, artificial scores and made-up narratives justifying them were provided. This happened not once, but twice. Two of the five total observations never actually took place.
- As another anecdote, at another school, a teacher did not receive the 2nd of her two master educator observations. The excuse? The master educators ran out of time in the school year (supposedly some quit mid-year?).
- Numerous teachers did not have the mandatory post-observation conferences—arguably the sole element of IMPACT that makes it more than a punitive or sorting mechanism—with their administrators.
- I’ve heard numerous stories about the purported unfairness with which administrators evaluated teachers whom they did not like. The human factor came into play here (subject of a future post).
These examples are not meant to downplay the extremely positive outcomes that I’ve seen with IMPACT. I know that my master educator observations, although the most harsh, score-wise, offered the most in terms of actionable next steps to improving my classroom environment. In fact, my master educators often followed up with me over email and provided invaluable resources in areas where I needed help. There are clearly many who had similar positive experiences.
Yet, I worry that IMPACT was rolled out too soon. Why do I say that and how do I know that the “problems” I’ve seen in this first year wouldn’t have happened if IMPACT were implemented later—that these weren’t just universal first-year problems? I don’t. But I do know that there are still many teachers out who still feel underprepared when it comes to acting on the requirements of the system. Heck, the administrators I’ve talked to sometimes feel lost, both in the burden of constantly evaluating teachers and in how they’re specifically supposed to evaluate teachers. And, beyond initial training, there just hasn’t been enough ongoing support in terms of becoming a better teacher (at least from an IMPACT perspective). I feel like I was given a torn set of instructions before being paradropped behind enemy lines where–in radio silence and without any updated directives–I’m tasked with assaulting the fortress of Effective Teaching. I know other teachers who feel this way.
(Disclaimer: my remarks are in no way borne out of bitterness; my IMPACT scores label me as “effective” and, in fact, quite close to “highly effective.”)
No one should construe the above as saying that we should throw IMPACT out. In fact, it must stay. I believe in the system. However, if, as I believe—and as Mr. Thompson implicitly believes—teacher buy-in depends to a large degree on first interactions, IMPACT has not succeeded. I am not a statistician, but I sense that the general attitude towards IMPACT is less favorable than one would expect.
I can only speculate about why IMPACT was rolled out so quickly. Perhaps there was pressure to implement the system before the new contract was ratified. Perhaps the upcoming mayoral contest had something to do with it. Or, perhaps, the central office felt that they had prepared as much as possible and were fully ready. I don’t know.
Of course, it is also too late to start over. That first impression has been made. IMPACT has been unrolled–and with much fanfare! Every successive interaction with the system will be tainted—or positively skewed?—by this first year. What’s left to do is to respond to these concerns and make significant improvements for the second iteration this coming fall.
Indeed, there is a lot of work to be done. Administrators need to be held more accountable; the discrepancy between master educator and administrator scores needs to be addressed (this issue will be addressed in a succeeding post); every teacher must receive every observation (missing one means missing 20% of possible data points); and teachers need to be better informed about the true purpose of the system (enough of the “us versus them” mentality!).
My reflections on IMPACT’s first impact may strike a reader as being pessimistic. I’d say I’m not. In fact, I’m confident that the strong leadership team in DCPS will work hard to ensure that IMPACT makes a valuable impact on teachers as they continue increasing their effectiveness as professionals who bear the responsibility of educating youth in the District of Columbia. Good luck.